Scaryfunny: A Qualitative Study of Risky Play Among Preschool Children
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- Institutt for psykologi 
Risky play seems to be a natural part of children’s play and action, and children seek out chances for engaging in challenging and thrilling play wherever they are. During the last few centuries this has brought on a discussion about children’s safety in their play environments. As a result of this discussion, many countries have enacted laws and regulations concerning children’s play and play environment. These constraints on children’s freedom to play have now been criticized by several researchers as a sad result of the safety-obsession in today’s western societies that in the end results in less physically fit children with low motor control and low risk mastery. Still, many preschool staff, parents and child care providers perceive the balance between letting children encounter risks and challenges and preventing serious injuries during play as a difficult matter. Although the current “safety versus risk” discussion has resulted in a growing number of studies on children’s risk-taking, research trying to take the children’s perspective on this phenomenon is scarce. The present study’s overall aim is to contribute to a better understanding of the phenomenon of children’s risky play – particularly with the aim of trying to grasp children’s perspective. The first research question of the study (paper I) was: How can we indentify and categorize children’s risky play in preschool? Observations and interviews with preschool children and staff revealed six categories of risky play: 1) play with great heights – danger of injury from falling, 2) play with high speed – uncontrolled speed and pace that can lead to collision with something (or someone), 3) play with dangerous tools – that can lead to injuries, 4) play near dangerous elements – where you can fall into or from something, 5) rough-and-tumble play– where the children can harm each other, and 6) play where the children can ”disappear”/get lost. The categories developed in paper I were used as tools to explore risky play in further observations and interviews of preschool children and staff. The second research question (paper II) was: What characteristics identify children’s play as risky? Analysis of observations of children engaging in risky play revealed two categories of characteristics by which to judge risky play: a) Environmental characteristics (such as height of climbing structure, surface hardness, steepness of sliding features, etc., as well as surveillance of adults), and b) Individual characteristics (such as the height and speed pursued by the child, the rashness of movements, motor control, focus/concentration, etc.). Individual characteristics are assumed to be highly influenced by the child’s subjective perception of risk, while both environmental and individual characteristics contribute to the objective risk in the play situation. The third research question of this study (paper III) was: How do children express their experiences of engaging in risky play? A phenomenological analysis was conducted on observations of children’s risky play, with the aim of detecting how children expressed their experiences of engaging in risky play; bodily, facially and verbally. The phenomenological interpretation showed that children’s experiences of engaging in risky play range from pure exhilaration, through exhilaration and fear at the same time (exhilaration bordering fear), to pure fear. Interestingly, the results indicated that experiencing both exhilaration and fear at the same time was the primary goal of engagement in risky play. The intensely thrill of the experience of mixed emotions when balancing between exhilaration and fear without switching to pure fear resulted in expressions of “fearful joy” such as screaming, high-pitched laughing and loud yelling because of the pleasure of the intensely high arousal the children experienced in these situations. This was explored further in the fourth research question (paper IV): Why do children take risks in play? Interviews with preschool children analyzed within the frame of Reversal Theory revealed that children’s motivation for and experiences of engaging in risky play formed a phenomenological structure where the contrast and ambiguity between the experiences of pleasant emotions versus unpleasant emotions were key concepts. This led to a contrast of arousal-increasing strategies versus arousal-reducing strategies and to the actions of approach/engagement versus refusal/withdrawal. The results showed that children experience both fear and excitement in risky play and that this ambiguous feeling is the central motivation for engaging in this play. It is the feeling of being on the edge, balancing between the pleasant emotions and the unpleasant emotions, that rewards the child with the most intense pleasure and excitement. By explorative means, the present study shows that it is possible to identify and categorize characteristics of risky play and that these categories can be useful for further research on the issue. By phenomenological and interpretive means, the study also provides a better understanding of how children experience partaking in risky play and why they like to engage in it. In this thesis, both these findings and the prior literature reviewed in the introduction section are discussed in relation to a model of risk-taking decisions and their influencing factors. In addition, an evolutionary psychological perspective of why children seek out risky situations forms a basic theoretical understanding for this phenomenon. As such, this study is a contribution to an emerging theorizing upon the phenomenon of children’s risky play and could form a basis for further theorizing on the issue. The focus on children’s perceptions and experiences of their engagement in risky play adopted in this study gives a better understanding of the phenomenon of risky play, and hopefully it will inspire to an increased focus of research on children’s natural urge for risky play and its costs and benefits.
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